Testimony on H.R. 1053: The Common Cents Stock Pricing Act of 1997

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1 Testimony on H.R. 1053: The Common Cents Stock Pricing Act of 1997 Lawrence Harris Marshall School of Business University of Southern California Presented to U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Commerce Subcommittee on Finance and Hazardous Materials April 16, 1997 Lawrence E. Harris Professor of Finance and Business Economics Marshall School of Business University of Southern California Los Angeles, CA Voice: (213) FAX: (213) Version: April 17, 1997

2 Summary Decimalization is a significant issue only to the extent that it affects the size of the minimum price increment, or tick. If the tick is too large, spreads will be too large. Traders will not be able to effectively compete on price. If the tick is too small, front-runners will exploit investors who offer to trade. Investors protect themselves against front-running by hiding their orders. They will display less size, they will employ more floor brokers, they will break up their orders, and they will shift their trading strategies towards market orders from limit orders. All these responses increase their transaction costs and make markets less liquid and less transparent. Empirical research shows that markets are less transparent when the tick size is small. All oral auctions have significant price increments to protect traders from others who would unfairly obtain precedence by improving price by a trivial amount. These issues apply only to oral auction markets like the NYSE and AMEX that use order precedence rules to arrange trades. Tick sizes in dealer markets like Nasdaq do little more than set a minimum bound on bid/ask spreads. Tick sizes should therefore be smaller in Nasdaq. The bill does not mandate that any market adopt a one penny tick, but in practice all must if any one does. Congress must therefore consider carefully the issues raised by this bill because the exchanges and the SEC will not be able to correct any mistakes made here. Estimates of the benefits to the public from decimalization are grossly overstated. They overcount the volume that would benefit from smaller quoted spreads. They do not adjust for the expected decline in the size of price improvements. They ignore the increase in commissions that will ultimately result from a decrease in payments for order flow. They do not estimate the increased costs that large traders will have to pay to avoid front-runners.

3 Testimony on H.R. 1053: The Common Cents Stock Pricing Act of 1997 Lawrence Harris Mr. Chairman, Members of this subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to testify about decimalization. I am Larry Harris, Professor of Finance at the Marshall School of Business of the University of Southern California. I have been studying the effects of trading rules on the securities markets for 15 years. During the last 10 years, I have been especially interested in how the minimum pricing increment the 1/8 tick affects trading. My interest in decimalization primarily concerns how it will affect the size of the tick. Whether traders use fractions or decimals is not a significant issue compared to the size of the tick that they do use. When I first thought about ticks, I did not understand why markets should have them at all. It seemed obvious that a large tick impeded competition among traders. I did not understand why a trader who wanted to improve prices by less than 1/8 should not be allowed to do so. My training as an economist suggested that we would be better off if traders were freely able to compete on price. I was especially concerned about how the tick affects dealer spreads. Since the spread can be no smaller than one tick, it seemed to me that a large tick supports artificially high spreads for dealers. Today, I remain concerned about the size of the tick. For some stocks, the tick is certainly too large.

4 I have come to understand, however, that my original thinking about tick size was flawed in some important respects. After 15 years of studying how various markets operate, I now recognize why oral auction markets like the NYSE and AMEX must have an economically significant tick to best serve public investors. Interestingly, the reason is one that this subcommittee, which also studies hazardous materials, will readily understand. For the first time, I may understand the wisdom of combining finance with hazardous materials. The common element has to do with the fact that unregulated markets are only in the public s interest if people do not do things that hurt or benefit the public for which they are not appropriately penalized or rewarded. We regulate hazardous materials because people will often take risks that affect the rest of us when they do not have to pay for the resulting adverse consequences. We likewise subsidize road construction in the various states because many benefits of building roads do not accrue to the states through which they pass. If we did not subsidize roads, states would build fewer of them and we would all be worse off. In the securities markets, public investors who stand willing and ready to trade with other investors provide a benefit to the public for which they are not always compensated. The benefit that these investors provide is liquidity. Investors who show that they are willing to trade give everybody options to trade. A regulatory problem arises because investors must give these options away for free. These trading options benefit the public, but the investors who create them are not always compensated. Worse, these investors are often exploited by other traders. As a result, fewer investors show that they are willing to trade than would be best for the public interest. 2

5 It is easiest to understand the problem by considering a simple example. Suppose that you submit a limit order to buy stock for 20 dollars. This order gives everyone in the world an option to sell stock at 20 dollars. A clever trader who sees your order can exploit it by submitting his own buy order at If a market sell order then arrives, the clever trader will buy instead of you. If price then rises, he profits, not you. If it appears that price will fall, however, he will sell to you at 20. You lose either way. The cost to the clever trader of exploiting your order is the potential one penny loss assumed in this example. Exchange markets protect investors from this front-running strategy through their minimum price increment rules. An economically significant tick raises the potential costs of the front-running strategy. Any trader who wants to go before another trader must offer a non-trivial improvement in price. This is not only good economics, it is also fair. You can convince yourself that this front-running strategy is a form of parasitic trading by considering what would have happened if you had canceled your order. The front-runner would have immediately canceled his order. The front-runner is not adding any new value to the market. He is just exploiting your order. If we made the tick too small, public investors will protect themselves against this frontrunning strategy by hiding their orders. They will display less size, they will employ more floor brokers, they will break up their orders, and they will shift their trading strategies towards market orders from limit orders. All these responses will increase their transaction costs and make markets less liquid and less transparent. In our example, the market order seller received a higher price because a quick trader stepped in front of your order. But if you had not shown your order, the seller might not have 3

6 received even 20. If we allow front-runners to drive you out of the market, both sides will be hurt. These arguments are not just speculative theories. Empirical research done by me and others clearly shows that markets are significantly less transparent when the tick size is small. The issues that I have discussed apply only to oral auction markets like the NYSE and AMEX. Dealer networks like Nasdaq do not have precedence rules to regulate who trades first. Tick sizes in these markets do little more than set a minimum bound on bid/ask spreads. Tick sizes should therefore be smaller in these markets. A decrease in tick size, however, will have less effect in dealer markets than in exchange markets because order preferencing arrangements give dealers little incentive to improve prices. The bill before us does not mandate that any market adopt a one penny tick. In practice, however, if any traders are allowed to quote on pennies, all markets will have to permit their traders to match these prices. This is because brokers must obtain best execution for their orders. It is therefore very important that Congress consider carefully the issues raised by this bill. A mistake made here will not easily be corrected by the exchanges or the SEC. In retrospect, my early view that exchange markets should not have significant price increments foolishly ignored the fact that all oral auction markets have them. I should have asked myself why art, land, tobacco, car and even charity auctions all have significant price increments. The answer is the same for all. Oral auction markets have significant price increments to protect traders from others who would unfairly obtain precedence by improving price by a trivial amount. My training as an economist has allowed me to recognize the tremendous benefits that competition brings to our economy. I solidly favor competition, but the playing field must be fair. 4

7 All free market economists agree that unregulated competition is not in the public interest when externalities are present in the market. The order exposure problem is one such externality. An economically significant tick has helped us create the most competitive and liquid equity markets in the world. It should be smaller in some cases, but not all. Let us be very careful with this important, but seemly trivial, issue. Supplemental Materials: Some Questions and Answers About Decimalization, attached. Decimalization: A Review of the Arguments and Evidence, USC Working Paper, March The Economics of Best Execution, USC Working Paper, March

8 Some Questions and Answers About Decimalization 1. Who benefits and who loses from smaller tick sizes? Dealers at exchanges, computerized traders, and small public market order investors will benefit. Limit order traders, large traders (the vast majority of whom manage money for small public investors) and Nasdaq dealers will lose. Exchange dealers benefit because a smaller tick allows them to trade in front of their limit order book. Presently, when the limit book has buy orders at 20 and sell orders at 20 1/8, specialists can hardly trade at all. They cannot buy ahead of the limit book at 20 and they cannot buy from their booked sell orders at 201/8. The only way that they can buy is by waiting until an incoming market sell order arrives and filling it at 201/8 (if no public traders in the crowd want to trade at that price). Likewise, the specialist can only sell at 20 if some market buy order arrives that the public does not want. Buying high and selling low is not the normal path to riches. Decimalization will help specialists by allowing them to step in front of their books to intercept incoming market orders at more favorable prices. Computerized traders benefit because they are most able to exploit the front-running strategies that become more profitable when the tick size is smaller. Front-running strategies work best when the front-runner can submit and cancel orders faster than can their victims. Computerized traders are very fast traders. Small market order traders will benefit because spreads will decline. Limit order traders will be hurt because spreads will decline and because of the increased front-running. Large traders will be hurt because of the increased front-running. 6

9 Nasdaq dealers will be hurt if the Nasdaq composite spread narrows. The recently adopted order exposure rules will tend to decrease these spreads. 2. The markets greatly benefited from the reduction in commissions in Why should we not expect the same benefits from a reduction in tick size? Commissions tax all public trades. Wide spreads tax only market order traders. If spreads decrease as a result of decimalization, only small market order traders will be better off, and then mostly only in stocks that now trade at one tick spreads. Limit order traders will be worse off. 3. How will decimalization affect payment for order flow and order preferencing arrangements? If spreads narrow, dealers will pay less for orders. This will weaken order preferencing arrangements. Dealers in exchange-listed stocks will be most impacted because these are the stocks for which spreads will narrow the most. Small market order customers will get better prices. They will ultimately have to pay higher commissions because brokers will not receive as much payment for their orders. 4. How will decimalization affect regional exchanges? Dealers at regional exchanges obtain most of their order flow through internalization and order preferencing arrangements. If spreads narrow, these dealers will be hurt. Although they will be better able to step in front of their customers limit orders, they will not benefit much from this because they do not receive many limit orders. Regional exchanges will be hurt by decimalization. The regionals will do better under decimalization only if the NYSE and AMEX choose not to narrow their ticks. This seems unlikely. 7

10 5. What effect will decimalization have on price improvement rates for market orders? Dealers will improve prices for market orders more often, but the improvements will be smaller. The empirical evidence from the Toronto Stock Exchange supports this view. 6. What do you think about the estimates of the benefits of decimalization that others have presented before this committee? These estimates greatly overestimate the benefits of decimalization. They overcount the volume that would benefit from smaller quoted spreads. They do not adjust for the expected decline in the size of price improvements. They ignore the increase in commissions that will ultimately result from a decrease in payments for order flow. They also do not estimate the increased costs that large traders will have to pay to avoid front-runners. Omitting these factors produces estimates that are unrealistically large in comparison to current dealer profits. 7. How much do you estimate the public will save from decimalization for each cent of spread reduction? Since it is very difficult to quantify the costs that front-running imposes on large traders, I will ignore these costs. I will note, however, that large traders are extremely sensitive to the exposure of their orders. For example, it would be fair to say the most of the floor community at the NYSE exists because large traders are unwilling to widely expose their orders. Since the cost of maintaining 2000 floor brokers and their clerks is probably at least 300 million dollars per year, it seems clear that the front-running problem is serious. To estimate the potential savings to public investors that would result from smaller spreads, we must first estimate the total volume of investor trades that would benefit from smaller spreads. This requires that total trading volume be decomposed into three 8

11 components: trades between investors and dealers, trades between public investors, and trades between dealers. Narrower spreads benefit the public only when they trade with dealers at their quoted prices. When a public investor trades with another investor, whatever one investor gains from a narrower spread will be exactly offset by the other investor s loss. This is also true for dealer-to-dealer trades. In 1996, approximately 125 billion shares were traded in exchange-listed firms and an additional 125 billion shares were traded in Nasdaq firms. In exchange-listed shares, dealers participated in about 20 percent of the volume. The remaining volume came from trades where investors traded directly with other traders. This suggests that only 25 billion exchange-listed shares would have benefited from a smaller spread. In Nasdaq stocks, dealerto-dealer trading probably accounts for about 20 percent of total volume. Public-to-public trading arranged through block brokers and through Instinet probably accounts about 20 percent, perhaps more. The remaining 60 percent (or less) of trading volume consists of trades between public traders and dealers. Of this, about half involves large public institutions who presently negotiate trade prices down to 1/64 s. Their trade prices are very often inside the quoted spreads. It seems unlikely that they would benefit much from smaller spreads. This leaves about 30 percent of Nasdaq volume which would benefit from smaller spreads, or 38 billion shares. Summing up the estimates for exchange-listed and Nasdaq stocks gives 63 billion shares. A one cent decrease in the spread benefits a buyer or a seller only by ½ cent because the spread is the difference between the quoted buy and sell prices. If we multiply the crude 63 billion share impacted volume estimate by ½ cent, the resulting estimated savings are about 9

12 300 million dollars per penny of reduced spreads: 125 million for listed stocks and 175 million for Nasdaq stocks. These estimates are quite imprecise since I am not intimately familiar with the allocation of volume to trade type. These estimates also do not account for changes in price improvement rates. The exchanges and Nasdaq should be able to provide much more precise information about these issues. I do not believe that my estimate of 300 million dollars of public savings per penny of reduced spreads is credible. To realize these savings, dealer profits would have to decline by 300 million dollars per year per penny of reduced spreads. Although I do not know about dealer profitability in Nasdaq, I do know that NYSE specialist firms profits last year were about 200 million dollars. Much (most?) of these profits probably came from commissions as opposed to trading profits. If the dealing profits totaled 100 million dollars, they would be smaller than the 125 million dollars projected savings in listed-stocks. If the estimate is credible, decimalization will cause the dealers to quit dealing. More likely, the estimate is not credible. Note again that decimalization is less likely to narrow spreads on Nasdaq than on the NYSE. The NYSE time-precedence rule rewards traders who improve the price. Since Nasdaq does not have a time-precedence rule, traders there have much less incentive to post narrower spreads. Decimalization in Nasdaq stocks will most likely narrow spreads only in stocks that currently have quoted spreads of 1/8. In general, decimalization will have more impact on the 1/8 spread stocks than on the other stocks. We should keep this point in mind when evaluating the one-penny average 10

13 spread reduction estimates. Although these estimates are computed over all stocks, not all stocks will benefit. 8. How large do you think the tick should be? Exchanges should set the tick so that the quoted spread is two ticks about half the time, and one tick the remainder. This will ensure that there are adequate opportunities for price improvement while protecting investors from front-running. 11

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